Recording Classical Guitar: Sage Advice from Engineers John Taylor, Norbert Kraft, and Ricardo Marui
BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
For more than 30 years before I took over as editor of Classical Guitar (in December 2014), my main job was working as a writer and editor of Mix, the leading American recording and sound magazine. I wrote literally thousands of articles, big and small, about nearly every aspect of the sound world, from nuts-and-bolts pieces about the making of this or that album, to the intricacies of recording sound effects for blockbuster films, to forums with engineers about every imaginable topic dealing with sound. It’s a wonderful community of brilliant and artistic people who are completely committed to the pursuit of quality. Just like all of you.
Because I’ve spent so much time in studios, watching sessions and talking to engineers, producers, and musicians about what they do, I reflexively listen to albums (and watch films) paying acute attention to the quality and nature of the recording and how (or if) it affects the presentation of the music. A badly recorded album is a sad thing—a wasted opportunity. So I’m happy to report: Over the past three years that I’ve been immersed in listening to classical guitar, most of the hundreds of albums I’ve heard have been well recorded, even though the circumstances of their creation vary widely—from a single stereo microphone placed near the guitar in an acoustically unremarkable room, to ambitious projects utilizing multiple microphones and expensive signal processing equipment in spectacularly ambient chapels, concert halls, or professional recording studios.
But in all my years of writing about recording, I’ve never penned an article specifically about capturing the sound, power, and subtle nuances of classical guitar, so I decided to seek out three top engineers in the field to educate me (and you) about what their job entails, how they do it, the philosophies behind their methodologies, and the equipment they use. I know that more and more guitarists are putting out their own albums these days; perhaps they will learn something from the way these three masters work their magic. I sent all three engineers the same questions and was thrilled to receive such thoughtful, articulate, and illuminating responses.
English engineer John Taylor recalls that his first sessions “were ones where I was in the firing line of the microphones, as a member of the Omega Guitar Quartet, back in the late 1970s.” Those sessions were recorded by John Bower, who had engineered Julian Bream’s RCA albums since the early ’60s, and Taylor was instantly hooked on recording. Unlike most audio engineers, “I had no training in recording studios, but started out as a classical guitarist who happened to have studied physics at university,” says Taylor. “As such, I had a natural curiosity about the theory and practice of recording, which I picked up from books and magazines.” His first “serious” recording was of his own quartet, and then he was off and running, evolving to become one of the top classical engineers and producers in the UK. His extensive guitar credits include David Russell, Eliot Fisk, Tom Kerstens, Ricardo Iznaola, Nigel North, Eleftheria Kotzia, the Eden Stell Duo (and spinoff Vida Quartet), Roberto Moronn Pérez, Xuefei Yang, Juan Martin, Fabio Zanon, Paco Peña, and more.
Austrian-born Canadian guitarist Norbert Kraft is arguably the most prolific classical-guitar engineer and producer of our time. Besides his successful (ongoing) career as a guitarist, for which he has travelled the world and recorded more than a dozen albums, and as a principal at Naxos Records (where he is Artistic Director for the label’s Guitar Collection), he has recorded—and usually produced—scores of classical-guitar albums by both up-and-coming players (first albums by GFA and other competition winners) and established masters. It’s a stunning list that includes such notables as Ricardo Gallén, Ana Vidovic, Zoran Dukic, Pablo Villegas, Nigel North, Jérémy Jouve, Antigoni Goni, Ali Arango, the Brasil Guitar Duo, Adam Levin, Shin-Ichi Fukuda, Anabel Montesinos, Marco Tamayo, and Irina Kulikova, to name just some. He remembers his first recording sessions as a performing guitarist as “nerve-wracking and high-pressured affairs, and it never seemed that we had enough time to get to the musical essence of my playing before the producer barked: ‘We have it; time to move on.’” Later, when he started recording other artists for Naxos, “I kept that memory clearly in my mind, never to make them feel cheated or impinged on musically.” Kraft, who records many non-guitar classical albums as well, says that when he was a teenager he was interested in electronics and actually wanted to become a recording engineer: “I laughingly say I simply took a 30-year detour, performing and teaching at university level, in preparation for the level of work I do now.”
Brazilian engineer Ricardo Marui is also a classical guitarist, and from 1990 to 2004, “I often played as a chamber musician, and I recorded a few CDs in that period. My first commercially released recording as a musician was in 1993—an album where I played in a duo with a violinist. Since I was also a trained electrical technician and systems analyst and had an easy time handling new technologies, I was actively involved in the production of my own recordings, and even edited my own tracks.” He began engineering for others in 2002 (a cello record by Zygmunt Kubala); a disc by Gilson Antunes became his first classical-guitar recording. Since, he has worked with Marcelo Kayath, Sérgio Abreu, Marco Pereira, Fabio Zanon, Jorge Caballero, and others, several of those for the high-quality GuitarCoop label.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: How has the way you record classical guitar evolved through the years—if at all—and is it changes in equipment or recording technique that have affected that evolution?
John Taylor. Photo by Ioannis Theodoridis
JOHN TAYLOR: There have been a few big changes over the years, beginning with the advent of digital recording and CDs in the early ’80s, and since then the increasing sophistication of analog-to-digital conversion, digital editing, and all sorts of new digital tools for manipulating or cleaning up audio. Personally, I have no great nostalgia for analog tape recording, which at its best could sound warm and clear, but suffered from many problems, such as “print-through,” which caused pre- and post-echoes on music with a wide dynamic range, such as classical guitar. This might seem an odd thing to say of such a quiet instrument, but in fact the full dynamic range from the quietest touch on a string to the loudest rasgueados is a challenge to reproduce successfully in a recording.
Unfortunately, digital recording got off to a bad start for audiophiles by promising “perfect sound forever” but delivering some recordings that were so starkly clean that they were as much fun to listen to as taking a cold shower while biting into a lemon. But I have to say that, even from the start, my own experience with digital recording was positive—for the first time I was able to make recordings that were hard to distinguish from the live feed from the microphones. And these days the best digital converters give a beautifully sweet and transparent sound.
However, in terms of the capture of the sound with microphones, I would say that there have been no major advances in the last few decades, unless you count multichannel surround sound, which has never caught on as a mainstream medium for classical music. Many of the microphone models from top manufacturers such as Schoeps, Neumann, and AKG are almost unchanged since the 1970s or even earlier, except perhaps for lower-noise electronics. And some engineers are even prepared to pay a fortune for ancient tube mics from the 1940s or ’50s, which they believe have never been matched for their unique sonic character—though I’ve never been tempted myself.
I’ve spent much of my working life as a one-man team of engineer and producer resisting various temptations—especially the temptation to use ever more elaborate multi-mic setups, and to use all the digital tools now available for “enhancing” the sound in various ways, or for eliminating every tiny flaw or extraneous noise in the playing. After all these years, what I like most is to record as simply as possible, using the minimum number of mics—if possible, just one for each stereo channel—carefully placed in a venue that’s just right for the music being recorded. And what’s more, if I can see the project through to a final edited master that has no signal processing whatsoever—EQ, reverb, compression, etc.—I’m very happy to leave it like that! This is such a minimal approach that many recording engineers would regard it as a dereliction of duty. But here I feel I have an advantage, in that the engineering is only one part of my job of seeing through a whole recording project. So I’m happy to keep the “engineer” in his place if he ever tries to justify his existence by getting too elaborate or clever for his own good!
Norbert Kraft in editing mode.
NORBERT KRAFT: I would say that aside from becoming more efficient and better at prioritizing details, I learned after the first few years not to “get in the way.” In my keen desire to get the best out of my artists, I would sometimes become overly zealous—not by trying to change the way they shaped the music, but by simply trying to get more of their own creativity to work better. This sometimes backfired, and the player would clam up rather than become more free. So a real aspect of my work has to do with the psychology of the situation, and learning to recognize when the artist can’t be “urged” any further. Some players, on the other hand, really thrive on this and welcome all musical suggestions, which then becomes a truly creative musical partnership on the session. This is especially true when I record chamber music, and I really get a charge out of feeling that I am an integral part of the performance, rather than just a bystander. One might think that once the mics are set, I simply sit back and let the players have at it. But my real session work is similar to that of a film director, guiding and shaping the performance from a perspective that the artist cannot possibly have. I am hearing as a “listener,” rather than from the players’ perspective on the stage, and the mics actually “hear” differently than the performers.
With regard to mic techniques, purists will say that “one microphone” is best for the cleanest, most natural sound; or at least just one point-source for the stereo pair, such as in an M-S recording setup. I have used this to good effect, and still do for part of my setup, say in piano recordings, or when I have another set of omni-directional mics in the far-field. But generally I use only a pair of omnis for 95 percent of my recordings, resorting to more mics only when the situation requires. In general, more is much less when it comes to microphones.
What I do play with a lot is the different character of various mics. I have some lovely tube mics, as well as some rather “clinical”-sounding mics at the other end of the spectrum—all of which claim to be “flat” in response. But we all know that every mic has its own character. It’s not unlike the different characters of various instruments. Most guitarists have several guitars, even from the same maker, each of which has its own personality, suited to different musical genres.
Ricardo Marui in action. Photo By Marcelo Guanabara
RICARDO MARUI: The first change has to do with my concept of what it means to record. In the beginning, I thought that a good recording should be as close as possible to the real sound of the live instrument—that is, that the sound of the speakers should be exactly the same as the sound I would hear if the musician was playing right in front of me, in the same room. Through the years, though, I realized that beyond the physical and acoustical impossibility of achieving this, there are many other factors that make a recording valuable to the listener. People have in their memories the sounds of albums that marked their relationship to music; recordings that are forever part of their memories.
Although we are now in the 21st century, with regard to classical guitar, people have as references the legendary recordings of Segovia, Julian Bream, Duo Abreu, and many other exceptional artists. The playing on these recordings is marvelous, but from the point of view of physics alone, they do not try to reproduce the live sound of the instrument, and for this they are no less spectacular.
Another thing that has changed, this time regarding recording technique, is that as I became more selective with respect to the acoustic quality of the spaces in which I recorded, I also developed some of my techniques for capturing the sound of the instrument. In spaces where the acoustics were less favorable, I used to use directional microphones closer to the instruments, as well as microphones that were a little further away—in an effort to compose a stereo image of the sound—but the audio of these [distant] microphones could rarely be effectively used.
Today, working in better spaces and with better equipment, I can record the sound of the instrument, and the space as a whole, using omnidirectional and figure-8 microphones. By figure-8 microphones, I’m referring to ribbon microphones, which have become my favorites for recording classical guitar.
CG: Here are a couple of interrelated issues: Can you briefly talk about the challenge of capturing both the full range and subtle nuances of the guitar? And when you choose to record a guitarist in a relatively reverberant environment, such as a church or concert hall, is your miking approach different than if you were recording in a conventional studio?
KRAFT: I very rarely record in a dry studio and nearly always use acoustic venues. These vary, of course, depending on the instrument—piano or string quartet require a different acoustic than Baroque orchestra, or opera, etc. The great challenge is to find the “perfect” venue for whichever instrument is involved. For guitar, I found a truly magical space right at the beginning—some 24 years ago—and have always recorded myself and other guitarists there. [St. John Chrysostom Church in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada] When entering the space for the first time, some of my younger artists look with dreamy eyes and call it “the Naxos church.” It is a bit of an odd-shaped building—a church of about 600 seats, very high at the altar, where the performing area is, and with five segments at the lower rear wall that reflect back to the stage as almost a sort of horn effect, making the reverberation quite long and complex. This gives me the freedom to come quite close to the instrument and capture the essence of its sound, almost like hearing the wood “breathe” as it’s played; magic indeed!
There is an art to finding the right “bloom point” for each instrument, and mixing that direct sound with the right amount of reverberation, depending on whether the result should be more “dry,” such as for contemporary or Classical-period music, or a more “Romantic” effect with more reverberation.
Here’s an example of one of Norbert Kraft’s fairly recent recordings :
TAYLOR: I have nothing against studio recording per se, but my specialty is to record in “real” spaces such as churches and concert halls, which is still a well-accepted way of producing classical music CDs, at least here in the UK. Of course, many orchestral and chamber-music recordings are made in large studios, which are similar to concert halls and have a desirable acoustic character of their own, but these tend to be very expensive for a mere guitarist to hire. More commonly, we would be talking about a small recording studio with a very dry acoustic, or a home studio without much space—and my own limited experience of trying to record in such places has been discouraging enough to keep me booking those churches, despite all the possible frustrations of planes passing over, lawnmowers, and various forms of wildlife in the background!
What I have always felt—and this applies to all acoustic instruments, not just the guitar—is that it’s a mistake to imagine that the instrument has an inherent sound that can be picked up by a close mic, or an array of close mics, unrelated to the space around it. In real life we don’t put our ears near the bridge, or over the soundhole, or close to the fingerboard. We listen to the whole instrument, at a comfortable distance, in a room where the sound travels in all directions and reaches our ears at slightly different times from all these directions. And if the room is spacious enough to give a warm “glow” around the notes, so much the better. Now, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that you’ll get a perfectly good recording by putting up a pair of mics several rows back from the stage in a concert hall—such a recording would almost certainly sound impossibly dim and distant—but I do believe you can capture the full range and subtle nuances of the guitar, with a pleasant feeling of openness around it, by placing the mics carefully at an intermediate distance. Not so close that it sounds raw and claustrophobic, nor so far away that it sounds like an empty room with someone playing the guitar in it, but close enough that the guitar sounds clear and present, with that enveloping glow of the acoustic all around it.
MARUI: When I began to work as a sound engineer, there was a consensus that classical-guitar recordings could only be done in large spaces, like churches or auditoriums. However, with the development of reverb devices—the more advanced models of which not only electronically alter the sound, but also simulate spaces in such a way that, if well employed, they’re able to achieve a sound similar to that of a larger environment—recording in studios not only became viable, but opened up a greater set of possibilities for the musician.
I still believe that the sound of a space with exceptional acoustics is difficult to be rendered by an electronic reverb device. Despite the advancements I described, I always explain to the musicians that record with me the important differences between recording in a studio, a church, or an auditorium.
In the studio, besides the possibility of achieving a totally balanced acoustic environment, the primary advantage is noise cancelling. This makes the process of recording much more productive, as there are no interruptions caused by extraneous noises from airplanes, cars, and animals, which invariably appear in the worst possible moments. On the other hand, a space with exceptional acoustics gives the musician a feeling of enormous comfort, as he or she is able to hear the sound with an ambience and color that is remarkably similar to what the final result will be. The musician who records in a studio, thus, only has the flat sound as his reference, with no effects, and has to imagine what will happen to the sound he is currently producing. This can often make the musician lose his or her references in relation to phrasing, color, and articulation, especially if the person has little experience with studio recording.
I think the best of all worlds would be to record in large spaces with balanced acoustics and noise cancelling, but this is not always possible.
CG: Does the particular guitar and/or the player’s style affect your mic choices?
TAYLOR: I’m rarely asked to record any guitarists other than classical players, and although the classical guitar repertoire ranges very widely, I find that most players still want a recording that sounds realistic and natural, whatever the music. So the differences in the choice of mics and their placement tend to be fairly subtle. Generally, I find that the distance of the mics from the guitar can’t be changed very much without upsetting the balance between direct and ambient sound. You can certainly make it more intimate by coming in a little closer, or more spacious by moving the mics a little further back, but not by too much either way, or you’ll run into the problems of dryness in the one case, or “emptiness” in the other.
One of the biggest issues in the classical guitar world is the question of what instrument to use, and guitars built to a radical new design can sound very different from a traditional model. Generally, the two best-known modern developments are lattice-top—Greg Smallman, etc.—and sandwich-top [also known as “double-top”]—Matthias Dammann, Gernot Wagner, etc.
Despite their differences from each other, both have in common an aim to enhance the guitar’s acoustic responsiveness, particularly by reducing the mass of the soundboard. Put simply, they tend to be louder, bigger-sounding instruments, but that’s not the whole story, as the liveness of their response can be unforgiving of the slightest error of touch, especially in a recording. Also, there tends to be a clear difference in the overall character of the sound between traditional, lattice-top, and sandwich-top guitars—so much so that, however hard they try, some people struggle to love all three types at once!
My own view is that while the more acoustically efficient types of guitars can be just what’s needed for playing chamber music with other instruments or filling halls where a traditional guitar would sound rather feeble, they don’t give any clear advantage for guitar-only recordings. Personally, I still like to hear a really good traditional spruce-top guitar, played by a guitarist with a keen ear for all the flexibility of color it can offer. But then, all good players know how to get the best from their chosen instruments, and I certainly wouldn’t turn down a job on the grounds that the guitar is the “wrong” kind!
John Taylor recorded and mastered the Eden Stell Guitar Duo’s Cançons i Dansesalbum:
MARUI: Yes, style is especially important. When I’m recording non-classical guitarists, I generally go for a closer capture. I like the final result of such recordings to sound intimate, as if the musician was playing in your living room. In these cases, I tend to use cardioid microphones like the Neumann KM 184. In my classical-guitar recordings, I tend to go for microphones with a smaller diaphragm. I generally achieve better results using this type of microphone—although another thing that I’ve learned over the years is that, when dealing with audio, there is not a single solution that works in every situation. For non-classical guitarists, too, a good microphone with a large diaphragm placed near the bridge of the guitar also leads to interesting results.
CG: This last question is for all the guitarists out there who can’t afford a proper recording session with an engineer and multiple mics, etc., but perhaps would just like to make a decent recording of themselves in their home environment. If you had to record a classical guitar with a single low- to mid-priced microphone, what might you choose, and where would you place the mic in relation to the guitar?
MARUI: First of all, in a household environment, the musician will rarely have a space with acoustics good enough that one might want to capture the sound of the space as well as that of the instrument. So, in that case, it is better to focus on capturing the sound straight, as neutrally as possible. This can be done, for example, by recording in front of a cabinet or a dresser with blankets. I hesitate to cite brands of microphones at low cost because I know that people reading an article like this tend to buy products simply because they were mentioned in an interview. But if I had to choose a low-cost condenser microphone, under $90, that works well for recordings of guitar—I even have a pair of them that I’ve used a couple of times—it would be the AKG Perception 170. If I’m not mistaken, I think that microphone was recently updated by AKG and is sold now as the AKG P170.
Ricardo Marui recorded Marcelo Kayath’s Suites & Sontas album:
TAYLOR: This is a very reasonable question, especially these days when musicians can reach a wide audience far more easily by posting videos on YouTube than by recording CDs. Unfortunately, I have to pass on this one, because I just don’t have the experience of using the low- to mid-priced mics currently on offer. And with mics, it’s really essential to hear them in use before deciding whether they are right for the job—it’s no good taking anyone else’s word for it, or hoping that reviewers on the internet share your preferences about sound.
Another thing I advise people is that it’s not just the mic itself that matters, but where you put it. Any mic is likely to sound unpleasantly boom-y if you place it right over the guitar’s soundhole, especially if it’s a directional type, such as a cardioid mic, which will overemphasize the low frequencies when placed close to the source. If you have a pair of mics to create a stereo image, it’s worth spending time experimenting with different configurations of the two mics—their distance apart, if any, and the angles they point in—as well as their placement relative to the guitar.
Finally, I’d suggest that it might be worth their while to check out their local area for any spacious rooms, halls, or churches with a nice acoustic for guitar music that could be available to try out for a test recording. If you’re really lucky, you might even find a place that you can use for free, where the real sound beats any artificial reverb that you might add to a boxy-sounding recording in a small room.
KRAFT: I have not personally researched or heard any of the lower-budget home equipment, so I’m not able to give much specific advice here. But a definite must is a condenser microphone, or maybe a ribbon mic. Contrary to the name, with “dynamic” microphones, the dynamics are simply not sensitive enough and generally cannot reveal the depth or subtleties of the classical guitar; they usually make the guitar sound tinny and compressed. This is where the biggest investment ought to be: If the source sound is poor, there is no way to “fix it in the mix.” Then, if at all possible, use a pretty live space of a certain size. You might think that a “live” room, such as a hallway or tile bathroom, can provide this, but the room does need to be big enough to avoid multiple early sound reflections.
If you have access to a good potential music producer—perhaps a colleague, teacher, or someone with the ears and musical knowledge you trust to help make you sound your best—this will take a huge burden from you while recording, and free up your concentration for the task of playing. It will be more like a performance than being under a microscope.
Recording is certainly a different art form than live performance, and the two should not be confused nor compared. With all the tools and references that we have at our disposal, it can be a powerful means of expression. There is no substitute for the live performance, the living creation at the moment before your very ears! But also, the expertly recorded performance is one in which the artist can take some risks, make great dynamic effects and new interpretive statements, and, not the least, is a record for all time of a moment in his or her musical achievement. Despite the current financial state of the recording industry, artists need to be heard, and listeners will always be there to hear them.
Recording Classical Guitar: More from John Taylor, Norbert Kraft, and Ricardo Marui
In this overflow from the “Recording Classical Guitar” feature in our Summer 2018 issue, recording engineers John Taylor (based in the UK), Norbert Kraft (based in Canada), and Ricardo Marui (based in Brazil) offer more specific advice about capturing classical guitar.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: On a typical recording project with a solo guitarist, how many mics are you using on the guitar, and can you describe approximately where you place them in relation to the guitar and in the room?
JOHN TAYLOR: In terms of mic techniques, the main change I made at an early stage, in the mid-1980s, was to abandon the crossed-pair configuration—known as X-Y stereo— in favor of the spaced-pair—called A-B stereo. An X-Y pair of highly directional mics placed close together and pointing towards the left and right, with an angle of around 90º between them, will give a clear spatial image of a group of musicians, when played through a pair of loudspeakers.
But there is another way of creating a stereo image using a single pair of mics—one that is in some ways closer to the way our ears give us a sense of space and direction in real life. Although the ears have some directionality in their pickup, because of the shielding effect of the head and the peculiar shape of the pinna, the eardrum itself responds more like an omnidirectional mic capsule—that is, it senses the fluctuations in air pressure without “knowing” or “caring” where the sound is coming from. Much of the directional information reaching our brains comes in the form of differences of the timing of sounds arriving at the two ears: For example, a handclap coming from somewhere to the right will produce a disturbance of the air that travels as a sound wave and reaches the right ear just before the left ear. This timing information plays a big part in our localization of sounds, and it means, for example, that if you set up a pair of omnidirectional mics spaced about a head’s width apart, record a group of instruments or singers with this pair placed side-by-side in front of them, and listen back on headphones, you’ll get a very clear image in your head, not only of where everyone is, but also of the space where they are performing. Unfortunately, the image on loudspeakers tends to be less clear and stable, but it can still be pretty good, especially if the spacing between the mics is increased somewhat.
My typical way, for what it’s worth, is to use a single matched pair of high-quality omni mics, mounted side-by-side on a stereo bar, about 36 cm (14 inches) apart, and placed not directly in front of the guitar body—which tends to sound rather harsh—but a little higher off the floor, and slightly off to the side; usually to the right from the guitarist’s point of view, i.e. nearer to the bridge than to the soundhole or fingerboard. I take the bridge to be close to the “epicenter” of the sound, and therefore the distance of the mics from the bridge is the most critical thing to get right. The optimum distance can vary quite widely according to how reverberant or otherwise the acoustic [of the room] is, but in the church I most often use—in Weston, Hertfordshire, England—it’s usually around 165 cm (65 inches).
NORBERT KRAFT: At the beginning of each session, I drag along about eight different pairs of microphones in order to try to match a mic’s “personality” to the sound the player is making. I know a number of engineers who simply bring the same mics, trusting that they are “flat” and that they grab exactly the sound being produced. However, there is much more to consider. Each player—even on the same instrument—has a different tone production and projection, and then, mixed with the characteristics of the room, this becomes a tapestry of sounds. This can be a nightmare to the inexperienced, or a fantastic field of discovery for the engineer with good ears and a knowledge of how his microphones work. This part of the session always takes an hour or more, and relies heavily on experimentation and comparative listening tests until the right combination of mics and exact placement are found.
Sure, there are some “formulas,” but the really fine nuances that make the difference between a satisfyingly musical recording and one that is either nasty and too close, or woolly and too far away, can only be found this way. To give an idea, once I have chosen the best mic for the job, then we are playing with distances that may vary at most one or two inches—usually less—in any direction: up, down, apart, or proximity. In my acoustic, which is quite “wet” [ambient] I am typically working at a distance of about 45-55 inches (140–165 cm) from the guitar, with my mics spaced about 18–24 inches (46–61 cm) apart.
Norbert Kraft: “I need to credit my life-long musical partner and wife, Bonnie Silver, who shares this work with me and carries at least half of the responsibility of our recording team.”
Needless to say, everything else in the recording chain has an effect, so my cables, as well as their lengths, preamp, and especially A/D [analog-to-digital] converters are selected for the highest sonic quality. My preamps of choice are from Sonodore, for their perfect balance of clarity with realistic warmth, and the last few years I have gone to a converter from Merging Technologies: Horus. The sound from this unit is as “analog” as I have heard from any, and when needed, I also trust the mic preamps in it to carry a clean signal. My DAW [digital audio workstation] is from SADiE in the UK. I used ProTools in the early days, but SADiE is just that much better-designed for classical music use. The editing program is phenomenally flexible and their tech support is incredibly reliable when I need it.
RICARDO MARUI: I’ve always worked with two pairs of microphones. The difference, today, are the types of microphones I work with. I use omnidirectional microphones and one stereo ribbon microphone, but even these have their deficiencies. Despite all advancements, such microphones, still, are better at capturing what is immediately in front of them than the sound of the space as a whole.
I see the guitar as a device that emits sound in two different regions: the area of the bridge, where all the weight of the sound is located, and the area between the neck and body of the guitar, where the sound becomes defined. I’m putting this very simply, here.
My placement of the microphones seeks to somehow combine the sound of these two regions of the instrument, resulting in a single sound that is at the same time present, defined, and weighty, and in this way, avoids phase cancelling. This is very hard to explain, because it comes only with many years of constant practice. It is also difficult, because microphone placement varies according to the instrument, the musician, and the acoustics of the space.
CG: If you have no objection, could you mention the models of some of the mics you use?
MARUI: In places where I need to capture the sound more closely, avoiding ambient sound, or in live recordings with amplification, I usually use a Neumann KM 184, a cardioid condenser [directional] microphone with a small diaphragm, whose characteristics, in my opinion, are well suited to the sound of the classical guitar.
For CD recordings in studios or on location my preferred combination is the DPA 2006 or 4006 and Royer SF-24 [ribbon mic], with the microphone pre-amplifier Millennia HV-3D. In these settings, I’m always thinking about capturing the sound of the whole, the combined sounds of the instrument and the space.
Ricardo Marui: “The level of satisfaction I derive from my work cannot be measured or translated into words, because being a sound engineer has enabled me to work with many of my idols, with the people that had inspired me to play the guitar.”
KRAFT: I’ve almost exclusively been using hand-made microphones by the Dutch electronics genius Rens Heijnis, under the trade name of Sonodore. I first discovered his work nearly 20 years ago through the fabulous mixing desk and preamps he made me, and then his original RCM 402 true omni microphones. They were a revelation to my ears, and from then on my other name-brand mics—Neumann, DPA, AKG, etc.—have been gathering cobwebs. Over the years he has developed several different models, based on different capsules, but all with his fantastically pristine electronics. They are like a perfect “window” on the performance, but without the clinical sterility of a lot of claimed “flat-response” microphones. They are such a musical complement to the performance. A few years ago, after much prodding from me, he finally conceded to making a tube version of his large diaphragm mic, and it’s a miracle! It is similar to the openness and clarity, combined with the palpable richness, of the older tube mics from the 1960s—but without their inherent noise problems—and a stunning sense of “being there” that no mic I have had even comes close to.
TAYLOR: I have no problem about mentioning specific brands or models, mainly because I’m obscure enough that it’s not going to make any difference to their sales, one way or the other! A pair of DPA 4006 omnis was my main weapon of choice for many years, and I still use them from time to time. For example, I find that they make Nigel North’s Baroque lute sound magnificently full and solid. However, in recent years I have been using a matched pair of Schoeps MK2 mics for most of my guitar recordings. These are similar to the DPA 4006 in that they are small-capsule omnidirectional mics designed for tonal accuracy—rather than hyping-up any particular frequency range—and they sound very realistic and transparent. But the Schoeps have a slightly different sonic character, with a delicate, “silvery” quality in the treble range.
Incidentally, I’m not a complete fanatic for minimal miking on everything. For larger groups I often use more than one main pair—including a crossed, but slightly spaced pair of somewhat directional mics, such as the Schoeps MK21—to enhance the stereo image, as well as spot mics if they are really needed for clarity and balance.
CG: What is your typical recording chain? Preamp? EQ? Is everything these days recorded directly into a laptop running some sort of digital software, which I guess could range from Pro Tools down to GarageBand, with plenty in between?
TAYLOR: I use a Buzz Audio—which doesn’t, fortunately! —MA-2.2 dual mic pre as my first choice. It’s a hefty piece of kit for the seemingly modest job of amplifying the tiny mic signals, but it does sound open and clear, with a really good dynamic range. Digital conversion is via the excellent Prism Sound Orpheus, which communicates with a laptop PC using Sequoia as the recording, editing, and mastering workstation. I never use EQ on the way in, and only very sparingly, if at all, on the way out. The one piece of outboard that I use fairly often is the Bricasti M7 reverb, which can be very useful for adding a little extra touch of sustain in an acoustic that’s just on the dry side of ideal. But I only use it sparingly, and only at the mastering stage, never during the actual recording.
John Taylor (right, with composer Stephen Dodgson, who wrote many pieces for solo guitar, in 2010): “It was a combination of music, technology and hands-on craft that really appealed to me.”
KRAFT: Needless to say, everything else in the recording chain has an effect, so my cables, as well as their lengths, preamp, and especially A/D converters are selected for the highest sonic quality. My preamps of choice are from Sonodore, for their perfect balance of clarity with realistic warmth, and the last few years I have gone to a converter from Merging Technologies: Horus. The sound from this unit is as “analog” as I have heard from any, and when needed, I also trust the mic preamps in it to carry a clean signal. My DAW is from SADiE in the UK. I used ProTools in the early days, but SADiE is just that much better designed for classical music use. The editing program is phenomenally flexible and their tech support is incredibly reliable when I need it.
MARUI: My recording setup is totally digital, which means that, in the recording stage, my chain is: microphones, good cables, a superior quality preamp like the Millennia—for recordings of classical guitar I never use preamps for valved microphones—and a good digital-analog converting interface. Recently, I’ve been using Metric Halo, which has yielded very interesting results.
The software for recording, editing, and mixing that I currently use is Pro Tools 12, but I’ve followed, with a lot of interest, the development of excellent software like Sequoia and Samplitude, which run on Windows. This is another myth that is currently falling, if it hasn’t already, that audio software must always run on a Mac.
CG: I suppose this would vary from project to project and piece to piece, but how much editing do you typically do in post-production? I presume that recording in a chapel negates the need to add extra reverb on the back end?
MARUI: I’ve learned something important about editing over the years. Although I am a guitarist and generally know the repertoire that is being recorded very well, I prefer to work with good producers rather than to also want to do their job; playing a double role.
Best results are achieved in recording when each person carries out the function that is his or her own: The musician plays the instrument, the sound engineer directs all of his attention to technical elements, and the producer organizes the recording process and directs the musicians. The work of the producer is many times relegated when discussing audio recording, but I consider it a fundamental part of the whole thing. Although it is still a common practice today, I’m firmly against the idea that a musician should perform at the same time the role of producer and artist in the recording studio.
An important point relative to editing is that, given the technical ease afforded by the digital world, I think many artists sometimes edit too much and, in this way, lose track of what is most important in a recording. Many times, a whole section with wonderful phrasing and an inspired interpretation is thrown away because a single note did not resonate as brightly as the rest.
With respect to mixing, I confess that I’m very economical with regard to the plug-ins that I use at this stage. I try to be as careful as I can in the process of positioning the microphones and capturing the sound, in order to make my life easier during mixing. When the capturing is well-done, in an environment with good acoustics, I do only a few corrections in equalizing the sound, and an adjustment of reverb to match the sound of the room. I rarely use compressors so I can preserve the musician’s choice of dynamics. When recording in a chapel, I generally position the microphones such that they capture the ambience of the space, so adding extra reverb during mixing becomes unnecessary.
TAYLOR: Yes, the amount of editing can vary enormously from one project to another, and not always for the obvious reason that some players are better—or at least better-prepared—than others. In some cases, the music itself is extremely fiddly to play, no matter how well it has been prepared. Or it can sometimes happen that an excellent player is constantly looking for something extra-special in the way of musical character, expression, daring virtuosity, or whatever it may be, and in these cases it can be exciting to push the limits of what’s possible in a recording, using multiple takes and finding a way of editing the best bits together so that the whole thing sounds like a wonderful, coherent performance. What I find less thrilling is “negative editing” —that is, spending hours and hours trying to eliminate every microscopic flaw in the playing, to make it all perfectly clean and tidy, while adding nothing of musical value. Although a certain amount of this tidying-up is necessary—it’s understandable that no one wants avoidable flaws to be included on a CD—there is also a danger that over-zealous editing can lead to “death by a thousand cuts,” where everything ends up sounding so clean and controlled that you can no longer believe you’re hearing a performance by an actual human being.
Still, there are plenty of good reasons for editing in almost every case, the main one being that its availability leaves players free to go all-out to realize their vision of how the music should go, without fear of calamity if there is a slip of the finger or momentary loss of concentration. Many times, I find that a single take contains some real gems, of perhaps a few measures that are unrepeatably lovely, but that other parts of the take are not good enough to use. With editing, none of those special moments need go to waste.
As I mentioned, I will sometimes add a tiny bit of extra reverb at the final stage, even if the recording has been made in a real “live” space such as a church—typically, if the real sound of the venue is fine as far as it goes, but would be nicer still if the notes lingered in the air just a fraction of a second longer. However, I’m always very cautious about adding reverb, as it’s fatally easy to overdo it. To my mind, many guitar recordings are ruined by the heavy-handed addition of a booming reverb that sounds impressive for a moment or two, but soon becomes an unwelcome distraction from the music and the true quality of the playing.
KRAFT: I’d estimate that a typical 65-minute CD has between 300 and 700 edits. That always comes as a shock to everyone. But it’s not because the player is making mistakes; rather we are striving for the best possible musical result. For example, if in measure 45 there is a wonderful G-sharp that we have to use to make the phrase sing, then that will invite at least two other edits or more, just to work in that note. Other takes may have had a fine G-sharp, but this one is so spectacular that we have to get it in there and make it match the surrounding material. So maybe I’m a masochist, but all my editing works toward this ideal in every moment of the music. In fact, this stems from the session itself, so I know from the beginning of the recording process what will affect the final edited version, weeks later.
Editing is by far the most time-consuming part of the work—where a session is two or three days, maybe 15–18 hours, the editing is 60–80 hours, and often more. I almost never add other artificial effects, EQ, reverb, etc., because these usually do not add, they take away. You cannot add something that is not there, but only compensate perhaps for flaws. I have on two occasions used a bit of limiter or compression, and in some cases I need to take away some background sound—traffic, birds—in takes that are truly special but had some external sound that was distracting. But for the most part, I work with the untampered live sound.
CG: I hope this question does not sound rude or cheeky—that’s certainly not my intention—but is there anything an engineer can do to mitigate the often audible sniffs and snorts that are an essential part of the way many guitarists breathe during their performances?
MARUI: The breathing sounds don’t bother me all that much because, generally, good musicians breathe together with the music; that is, the breathing flows with the piece. There are, however, a few tricks to minimize this, like positioning the microphones so as to capture fewer breathing noises, and even in some cases, using plug-ins like Izotope RX, which efficiently eliminates extraneous sounds without interfering in the music.
TAYLOR: Personally, I have quite a high tolerance of breathing noises. Unless they’re really obtrusive, they just seem to me another sign of life, and I’m always hoping that listeners will at least experience the illusion that they are hearing a real person playing in a real space when they put on a recording I have produced. However, I do sometimes attempt to cut out sniffs during rests—or, more precisely, replace them with an equal length of matching ambience without the sniff.
In some cases, it’s possible to use a noise reduction tool, such as the one called “spectral cleaning” on Sequoia [DAW], which tries to identify the frequencies present in an unwanted noise, and remove or reduce it without disturbing the musical sound. But this can be difficult in the case of breathing noises, which cover a wide range of frequencies and can last as long as several notes each. Incidentally, spectral cleaning can sometimes be quite effective in reducing string squeaks—the noise reduction tool focuses on the squeak frequencies while leaving the musical notes virtually unchanged.
If all else fails, you can always fall back on a clothes peg applied to the player’s nose, or a gag over the mouth—or so I’m told. So far I’ve never resorted to such drastic measures myself.
(Special thanks to David Molina for his expert translations from Portuguese for Ricardo Marui’s answers!)
Guitarist/engineer Jan Zacek conducts a microphone test with models from Neumann, Schoeps, and B&K at Acustica Studio in Germany.